Orthodoxy Today, that bastion of theological internet civility, recently published an excerpt of a presentation Fr. John Parker gave at a conference on pastoral care in a digital age. In it he accused the editors and writers of Public Orthodoxy, Orthodoxy in Dialogue, and The Wheel of prowling around like wolves in sheep’s clothing, preying on an unsuspecting catechumenate to sow division, discord, and confusion. They pretend to promote dialog, when really they have diabolical motives, mostly having to do with making the church more welcoming to LGBTQ people. It is a tired and thus boring accusation, a thesis plagiarized from a myriad of internet blog comments and coffee hour conversations with like-minded people. More importantly, it is a hypocritical thesis. Fr. Parker accuses the above sites of trying to sow confusion, when in fact he seems to do precisely the same thing.
I know in some way the editors of Orthodoxy in Dialogue, The Wheel, and Public Orthodoxy. I myself have contributed a couple of articles to the latter. The blanket accusation of a general, almost conspiratorial intent to sow confusion is both offensive and false. It is offensive because, speaking for myself at least, that is not the case. It is false because there are contributors to those sites who share his same views on gender and sexuality and because the active solicitation and publication of authors who share those views bellies the any supposedly nefarious intent on the part of those who run the sites.
(I should say here that I am speaking from my experience with Orthodoxy in Dialogue and Public Orthodoxy. I am less read in The Wheel.)
The problem with accusations like Fr. Parker’s is that they assume a great deal about the inner motives of those who have taken the time, effort, money, not to mention loads of personal abuse, to start and keep those sites running. To write and publish something even remotely affirming of LGBTQ individuals is to douse oneself in troll pheromone. That is a whole lot of work for something so nefarious.
A more charitable, dare I say “Christian,” presumption would be that those who seek to engage in dialog over controversial issues really do want nothing more than dialog. Perhaps they do not seek confusion but understanding. They have studied enough history to know that Orthodoxy today is a lot more reactionary than it used to be. We have lost political power (thanks be to God) and cultural influence, and so out of fear, like caged animals, we lash out at those who seem to represent that which we falsely perceive to threaten us.
Those whom Fr. Parker derisively accuses of considering themselves to be “teachers” of the faith would be more inclined to call themselves “students” of it. They have questions, and the church has provided no answers, or at best bad ones. We have had too many conversations with people that have gone something like this:
Person 1: The Orthodox Church has always opposed homosexuality.
Person 2: Yes, but to what extend do–
Person 1: ALWAYS OPPOSED!
Conversations with those not interested in dialog are both frustrating and at times infuriating. The other party provides a scripted answer and gets frustrated with the person who keeps having more questions. Perhaps if an answer does not satisfy the person asking the question, then the answer is not a very good one.
It is not as if those who draw the ire of the Orthodoxy Today crowd are any less committed to the church’s survival. They perceive the threats differently. For the one, the main threat to Orthodoxy is modernity; for the other, it is failing to take modernity seriously. Modernity has questions, and the Orthodox Church must have the courage to provide good answers. And good answers, as any moderately competent teacher knows, requires the willingness to question oneself—the courage to be challenged. For some people, far too many actually, that prospect is absolutely terrifying.
That is why I call “hypocrisy” on Fr. Parker’s accusations of diabolical intent on the part of his online bogeymen. He says their intent is to sew confusion, but that is the very thing Fr. Parker is doing. People are not asking questions Fr. Parker does not like because they want to cause confusion. They ask questions because they are confused. They do not seek discord but conversation and eventually clarity. What Fr. Parker would like is for people not to have questions to begin with, to stay in darkness, or to argue themselves into disingenuous belief, faith that is more an act of stubbornness than a gift of God’s grace and love.
Fr. Parker is sowing confusion because he is sowing fear. “Be afraid of the wolves!” Get the adrenaline pumping. Make people react emotionally, even violently (if not in real life then in words, thoughts, and tweets). A priest should do his best to avoid stirring up people’s passions. A priest should not encourage the trolls.
I cannot speak for all people, of course, but I have yet to come across any wolves. We are all just sheep here, doing our best to follow our Shepherd. Our pastors would do well to lead us toward him without fear, not to bark at us like border collies, nipping at our backsides to get us to fall in line.